As Miss Universe celebrates its first openly lesbian finalist, Roxy Bourdillon investigates what it’s really like being a queer beauty queen

BY ROXY BOURDILLON

A blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty queen is waiting to hear if she’s won. She stands onstage wearing a diamante-encrusted evening dress, immaculately applied make-up, and no shoes. A few moments earlier, Emma-Jay was struck with an extreme attack of visceral nerves. Her legs became the proverbial jelly, her knees quite literally knocking together. She could barely keep herself upright and had no choice but to kick off her sky high heels before heading back out. So now here she is, in front of a packed crowd, barefoot in her ballgown. She’s made it down to the final two. The air is thick with hairspray and anticipation. She squeezes the other finalist’s hand, and whispers warmly, “You’ve got this”. After all, she’s already accepted that there’s absolutely no way she’s going to win. Her rival is six foot tall, slim, a goddess in emerald green. She looks every inch the beauty queen. And here Emma-Jay is, half her height, plus size, a mum of two, in her 30s, a lesbian with no shoes.

“The winner of Miss Paragon International 2018 is… Emma-Jay Webber!” Eh? That can’t be right. They must be announcing the runner-up first. She’s definitely misheard. The host repeats into the microphone, “The winner is Emma-Jay!” Oh my god. She’s only gone and bloody done it. In that instant, all her Miss Congeniality-inspired fantasies have come true.

Diversity in pageantry is a hot topic and Emma-Jay’s win shows how much the industry seems to have changed. As of December 2019, for the first time in history, five of the most prestigious titles – Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss America – are all held by women of colour. The latest Miss Universe saw its first openly lesbian finalist, Swe Zin Htet. And in 2018, Netflix film Dumplin’ told the story of plus size Texan teen Willowdean Dickson, who enters the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant as a protest against her former-beauty-queen mother, played by Jennifer Aniston. Willowdean finds herself on a voyage of self-discovery, complete with drag queen fairy godmothers and dynamite life advice from Dolly Parton: “Figure out who you are, and do it on purpose”.

The old-fashioned beauty contest has been reborn for a new era. Many competitions are making an effort to, at least, appear more modern. In 2018, law student Sara Iftekhar became the first British pageant finalist to compete wearing a hijab, Miss GB has introduced a make-up free round, and last year a record-breaking 20,000 women entered Miss England. Having blubbed like a baby with body image issues at Dumplin’, I’m keen to learn more about this intriguing, apparently evolving, world. A world traditionally steeped in sexism, regularly accused of objectifying and demeaning women, and promoting unattainable beauty standards. In romcom classic, Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock’s character Gracie expresses her damning view of pageants: “It’s like feminism never even happened. Any woman that does this is catering to misogynistic Neanderthal mentality.” In Dumplin’, Willowdean’s friend, Hannah – who, at least in my head, is queer and totally in love with Millie – describes pageants as institutions of “the oppressive heteropatriarchy, unconsciously internalised by the female psyche”. Both women make compelling points. But is it possible for pageants to be diverse, feminist and queer-inclusive? Or are these queens kidding themselves?

In an effort to find out, I join Emma-Jay at the finals of Miss Trans Beauty 2019, held in a conference centre in Kensington. This time she’s on the judging panel, and keeping her stilettos firmly on. Before we take our seats, I can’t resist trying on her crown. It’s just too fabulous to miss out on – gold, glimmering, majestic. As I balance it precariously on top of my head and strike a pose for a royal selfie, I find it’s surprisingly tricky to keep on. I’m terrified it will topple. As I will come to learn, it’s not easy being a beauty queen. One wrong move and your queendom could come tumbling down. But more on that later.

Tonight Emma-Jay is resplendent in a red gown and intricate up-do. An ex-semi-professional footballer, she discovered pageantry while searching for body positive blogs online. Having previously been crowned Mrs England Curve and Miss Paragon International, she is the current reigning Miss World Class England, and editor-in-chief of World Class Beauty Queen magazine. Radiating passion, positivity and joie de vivre, she’s thrilled about all the women of colour winning top tier pageants. “We just need to get the LGBT community on there now! I get more and more tempted to step forward in one of these major pageants, as a plus sized girl and gay, just to ruffle some feathers!” She’s keen to convey that pageants aren’t what people might assume. “It’s not glorifying women in bikinis. It really is trying to bring positive change in the world. They’re becoming so diverse. It’s brilliant.”

Nevertheless, she initially kept her own sexuality under wraps. “The first gala I went to, people asked, ‘Where’s your husband tonight?’ There were so many awkward situations.” As femmes know all too well, girly gay women are often assumed to be straight, but in the heteronormative world of pageants, this occurrence is even more commonplace. It’s femme invisibility magnified tenfold.

Lesbian-specific competitions like Miss Gay UK are now defunct, so I wonder how queer queens fare competing alongside their straight sisters? For Emma-Jay, who is now out and proud, it’s mostly a non-issue, although at one event she did notice a few funny looks when she held her partner’s hand, which made them both feel “at times, uncomfortable”. Overall though, she’s encountered more negativity for her size than her sexuality, particularly on social media. “I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be a beauty queen, because I don’t look like one, that I’m a drain on the NHS, I’m promoting obesity. I simply delete and ignore.” She finds it “astonishing” that there aren’t more out gay women in the UK pageant scene. “But me being me, I like to break the mould.”

Of the lesbian and bi contestants she does know, some remain closeted, “often because they don’t want to ruin their career”. Emma-Jay blames a “severe lack of visibility” and the industry’s heteronormative history. “It is moving with the times and becoming more modern, but the terms and conditions of some of the pageant systems are so old school.” Let’s take Miss World as an example. To enter, you must be under 26, unmarried and childless. Many pageants stipulate that you can’t compete if you’ve done topless modelling, and if you fall pregnant within six months of winning, your title can be taken away.

Despite their current resurgence in popularity, pageants remain controversial. Just last year, the Miss India competition was criticised for colourism, because all the finalists had such pale skin. In 2017, Zoiey Smale handed back her Miss UK title when organisers instructed her to “lose as much weight as possible” before taking part in the Miss United Continents final in Ecuador. She was a size 10. And in 2016, in a very public slut-shaming, Love Island contestant Zara Holland had her Miss GB title removed after she slept with a fellow housemate. The underlying message of some pageants still seems to be: “Be virginal, but like, sexy virginal. And have you thought about going on a diet?” If you make one wrong move, the patriarchal powers that be will snatch away your title and tiara quicker than you can say, “world peace”. I realise that winners sign contracts, but this whole “stripping of the crown” tradition seems like something out of Game Of Thrones: medieval, controlling, disempowering to women.

Talking of history, the roots of beauty pageants are fascinating and surprisingly feminist. American pageants are thought to have evolved from suffragist parades in the 1910s, when campaigners paraded dressed up as icons like Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale. The sashes beauty queens don to this day are related to the “Votes for women” sashes of yesteryear. That hasn’t stopped legions of feminists objecting vehemently to beauty pageants though. This March sees the release of Misbehaviour, starring Keira Knightley, telling the true story of the dramatic women’s lib protest against the 1970 Miss World final. In response to allegations of sexism, contestants often argue that pageants empower women, giving them a personal platform and exposure. But is individual female empowerment coming at the expense of the wider feminist movement?

And what of the rights and representation of LGBTQI+ people? When it comes to gender identity, many contests still insist that entrants must be assigned female at birth. Miss Universe has been accepting entries from trans women since 2012, and in 2018 Angela Ponce became the first to reach the final, after being crowned Miss Spain. She tells The Associated Press, “If my going through all this contributes to the world moving a little step forward, then that’s a personal crown that will always accompany me.”

Tonight’s jubilant Miss Trans Beauty contest is designed specifically to celebrate the community. The audience cheers as seven glamazons slink onstage in identical scarlet swimsuits. In the talent round, they demonstrate their party tricks, from belting out power ballads to finger-painting a giant portrait in one-minute flat. Then it’s time for eveningwear. They sashay in embellished gowns to an instrumental of This Is Me from The Greatest Showman. I ask Emma-Jay what she’s looking for as a judge. “Somebody who is confident, and being themselves. Don’t try to be what you think a pageant queen should be. Let your own uniqueness shine through.”

The stakes are high. When a queen wins a pageant she gets much more than just a crown, a pot of prize money and a boost to her self-esteem. She is granted a platform to promote causes close to her heart. For Emma-Jay, that means campaigning for body positivity and representing LGBTQI+ beauty queens through personal appearances, modelling and outreach work. “One of the girls I’ve met, her platform is around domestic violence because of her own experiences. It’s a sisterhood, an army of people trying to make a difference in the world.”

Another queer queen making the most of her crown is Lucy Rayner, aka Miss Teen Diamond UK. After coming out at 11, Lucy was targeted by her classmates. One even pulled a knife on her. “These experiences have stuck with me. I find them to be a powerful motivator.” Now Lucy mentors young LGBTQI+ people and is an ambassador for MindOut UK. When she started competing internationally, she had to consider whether to tone down her vocal support for LGBTQI+ rights. “But I decided I’d rather lose than betray my message.”

Miss Trans Beauty

Not all queer contestants choose to be so open about their sexuality on the circuit. One privately confides, “I was bullied when I came out and no girls would get changed around me as they thought I’d be looking at them inappropriately. I suppose I’m scared of this situation happening again. I don’t want to lose friendships.”

Somebody who did decide to take the plunge is Swe Zin Htet. After being crowned Miss Myanmar 2019, Swe announced that she was a lesbian just days before the Miss Universe final. She may not have made the top 20, but she did make history as the contest’s first openly gay finalist. Her story is even more groundbreaking as homosexuality is illegal in her home country, also known as Burma, carrying a prison sentence between 10 years and lifetime. She tells People magazine, “I have that platform that, if I say that I’m a lesbian, it will have a big impact on the LGBTQ community back in Burma.” Fans have nicknamed her “Superman”.

Swe doesn’t end up getting much air time in the finals, so I turn to YouTube to see her doing her thing in Miss Myanmar. “Go Swe!” I think. Then the video cuts to the infamous Miss Universe bathing suit round. She struts across the stage in a hot pink bikini and stilettos. Her age, height, weight, hip, waist and bust measurements appear on the screen. It’s a jolting reminder that, while pageants might be becoming incrementally more diverse, sexism still sometimes manages to sneak its way in. And it’s wonderful that Swe made it to the final, but let’s not forget, she won her title before she went public about her sexuality.

The same is true for Patricia Yurena Rodriguez. She came out as a lesbian at the end of her reign as Miss Spain 2013, posting a selfie with her DJ girlfriend alongside the caption “Romeo and Juliet”. In an interview with La Nacion, Patricia confesses she was “surprised” at the media interest in her sexuality, but understood that it was the first time a queen at her level had come out. She adds promisingly, “There will be many others”. It’s worth noting that those gay women who do compete all conform to a very specific, heteronormative idea of female beauty. There are no androgynous or masculine-of-centre competitors. Trans contestants are few and far between and those there are have “passing privilege”.

Watching the 2019 Miss Universe final, I see all the glitzy hallmarks you’d expect – dozens of women with the prerequisite glossy lips, shimmering gowns and gym-honed physiques. They look like real life Barbies. While they have participated in interview rounds and various challenges beforehand, their main function on the night is ornamental. They stand, they smile, they sparkle. Admittedly, there are signs of progress too. In the question and answer round, finalists are quizzed on topics including political protests, climate change and reproductive healthcare. While many respond in bland, diplomatic cliches, Miss South Africa, Zozibini Tunzi, is genuinely inspiring. Her short, natural hair stands out in a sea of cascading bouffants. After being crowned Miss Universe, Zozibini addresses the audience: “I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair, was never considered to be beautiful. And I think it’s time that stops today. I want children to look at me and see my face, and I want them to see their faces reflected in mine.” It’s a powerful speech and Zozibini is magnificent, but I can’t shake off my pervading feelings of unease about the whole Miss Universe franchise, which was owned by Donald Trump for nearly two decades up until 2015. He publicly bragged about being able to walk into dressing rooms full of semi-naked contestants, joking that he felt “obliged” to sleep with them.

It’s a week later, and time for the Miss World final. Peter Andre is hosting and spouting the line male hosts of beauty pageants everywhere spout: “It’s my dream gig, because there’s over 100 of the most beautiful ladies in the world and I’m the only man in the show”. So far, so samey. Then one of the judges gets up onstage to interview the finalists. It’s Piers Morgan. I can’t help thinking it slightly undermines any feminist credentials this competition might have claimed, employing a bloke who bullies women and minorities on breakfast television, and calls men “an endangered species”. Naturally, Piers, flanked by row upon row of glittering contestants, tells the crowd, “I’ve waited 54 years for this moment”.

The more I investigate pageantry, the more contradictions I discover and the more conflicting emotions I feel. Increasing diversity certainly looks like positive change, but the system that diversity exists in still seems pretty problematic, especially in top tier pageants. While in some competitions there is a real desire to champion diverse women, when you look at the big name brands it’s easy to spot the remnants of oppression – the archaic regulations, the glaring lack of body diversity, the sleazy fingerprints of powerful ogres like Morgan and Trump.

I struggle to resolve all my misgivings, but one thing I’m not at all ambivalent about is how incredible these women are. I am moved by Emma-Jay, Lucy, Patricia, Swe, Angela and Zozibini, not by their beauty, but by their strength. They are using this traditionally patriarchal institution to their advantage, and speaking out for other marginalised people. I may have mixed feelings about the contests themselves that no amount of glitter, gowns and industrial strength concealer can completely cover up, but so many of the competitors are true queens, whether or not they are wearing a crown.

Follow Emma-Jay and Lucy on Instagram @uk_pageantgirl and @lucyhelenrayner

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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